While the story has a few notable deficiencies — no independent comment and insufficient statistical detail regarding the magnitude of the effect — readers will undoubtedly come away with the right bottom line message about this study: Interesting, but inconclusive.
Dementia will place a growing burden on individuals and our society as the population ages, yet there are currently no effective ways to prevent or treat this condition. Instead of offering false hope about strategies that have little chance of making a difference, stories such as this one help give readers a realistic view of where they should they spend their time and energy when trying to reduce health risks.
The costs of foods containing vitamin E is not really in question, so we’ll call this one not applicable.
The story comes a whisker away from earning a satisfactory on this one. It leads by noting that participants with the highest vitamin E intakes had a 25% lower risk of dementia compared with those who had the lowest intakes, It more precisely quantifies this benefit later in the story, where it explains that 120 people developed dementia in the group with the highest vitamin E intake compared with 164 people in the low- intake group. What would have been most informative, however, is if the story had provided some denominators for this comparison — that is, 120 out of how many people developed dementia in the first group compared with 164 out of how many people in the second? This would given readers a better sense of the absolute risk reduction associated with higher vitamin E intake. We know this sets the bar high, but for good reason, we think.
There are no known harms to eating a diet rich in foods containing vitamin E, but this story goes the extra mile and notes that high vitamin E intake from supplements can cause excessive bleeding.
The story uses appropriate language and caveats when reporting on the results of this observational study. It notes that the findings "do not prove that vitamin E itself protects the aging brain," and there is no talk about vitamin E "lowering the risk" of dementia. The story also provides the key details regarding how the researchers conducted the study, including the number of participants; how vitamin E intake was assessed; how long the participants were followed; what confounding factors were included in the analysis; and how much vitamin E participants were getting in the group that had the lowest risk.
Had the story sought out a comment from an expert in nutritional epidemiology, they likely would have pointed out some problems with trying to assess dietary intake from a single baseline questionnaire as was used in this study. They also would have provided additional context about the MANY other studies (including other large cohorts) that have looked at associations between antioxidants and dementia/ cognitive decline. Nevertheless, readers can’t miss the take-home message, which is that these findings are not conclusive.
There was no disease-mongering of dementia in this story.
Although the story is generally well balanced, it could have benefited from the inclusion of an independent comment on the findings. Valuable context about prior studies and the serious limitations of the current study would have been helpful.
There is currently no proven method for preventing age-related dementia. We might have wished that this story had mentioned some other diet and lifestyle choices that are associated with reduced risk in observational studies. These include staying physically active, not smoking, eating a Mediterranean-style diet (rich in fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids), and keeping your mind engaged in intellectually challenging pursuits. But since the evidence is kind of squishy for all of this, we rule this satisfactory.
The story provides a list of foods that are rich in this micronutrient.
The idea that vitamin E and other antioxidants might protect against dementia is not new, and the story doesn’t suggest that it is.
While the story doesn’t appear to have lifted anything directly from the press release issued for this study, it also doesn’t seem to have interviewed anyone about the research. Since we can’t be sure to what extent the story relied on a release, we’ll call it not applicable.